In the days since Allen Iverson has been put on the trading block, it seems like every team in the NBA has lined up to make an offer for the Philadelphia 76ers guard. Meanwhile, fans and writers have ridiculed the Sixers for failing to make it work with a once-in-a-lifetime talent. On ESPN.com, Bill Simmons wrote, “How could a coach-killer who allegedly monopolizes the ball, hates to practice and can’t sublimate his game double as one of the most revered, respected players in the league?” While that’s an appealingly complex idea—a misunderstood Iverson done in by incompetent coaches and executives—the truth is much simpler. The Sixers may have mishandled their star player’s career, but it’s Iverson’s style of play that’s set up the team—and him—for disappointment.
For better or worse, Iverson is synonymous with the NBA Dark Ages of the later 1990s. Probably the best player under 6 feet tall in the history of the league, Iverson’s intensity and heart made him one of the sport’s most popular figures. On the other side, his freewheeling play, clashes with coaches, and brushes with the law made him the poster child for the sport’s post-Jordan decline. If Jordan defined his era by being an icon everyone could agree on, then Iverson’s divisiveness defined his.
Yet Allen Iverson is much more of a traditionalist than he’s made out to be. He routinely takes the floor with serious injuries and gives his all in seemingly meaningless contests. When so many of his peers thought nothing of switching teams in free agency, he stuck with Philly for 10 up-and-down seasons. He often spoke of wanting to retire as a Sixer and didn’t ask out for years despite repeated attempts by management to show him the door. And even when fans in Philadelphia criticized him, he loved his city unconditionally. San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett have practically been sainted for devotion to their respective franchises. Iverson is rarely given the same recognition.
But there’s an important difference between Iverson and stars like Duncan and Garnett: They’re team players, and he is not. Duncan and Garnett are unselfish, versatile, and almost deferential to their teammates. Iverson shoots relentlessly, disrupts any attempts at team strategy, and has proven incompatible with just about every kind of complementary scorer. The Sixers may never have given him a competent starting five, but he never achieved any kind of chemistry with above-average players like Chris Webber, Jerry Stackhouse, Andre Iguodala, Larry Hughes, Matt Harpring, and Keith Van Horn. Whenever the team succeeded, it was because of his individual efforts. Conversely, when Iverson clanked his way through an off-night, there was no alternative the Sixers could turn to.
When Michael Jordan was at his peak, half the country identified as Bulls fans. Yet while Iverson’s jersey remains among the league’s top sellers, most people couldn’t care less about the uninspiring Sixers. It’s not a stretch to say that since he’s been on the team, the Philadelphia 76ers have thrived only as a platform for Allen Iverson.
Iverson was willing to take an entire franchise on his back for a decade, and the Sixers’ fairly regular playoff trips made this seem like a viable approach. That he was capable of this is nothing short of astounding; that he was willing to do it smacks of high-stakes narcissism. As big men, Garnett and Duncan are conditioned to trust the coach and work within his plan. Iverson, a darting, improvisatory ball handler, seems to trust only himself. He plays the game like it’s personal, his moves guided by a combination of indignation, hunger, and suspicion. Perhaps because of his lack of size, or because he plays so hard, Iverson’s teammates, bosses, and fans have all embraced the fact that the Sixers have been a one-man team for so long. Never has such a self-centered player been so celebrated.
To his credit, Iverson has mellowed some over the last few years. He finally relented and agreed to play point guard, that most magnanimous of positions. He upped his assist totals, improved his shot selection slightly, and cut down on his turnovers. Chances are, wherever he goes next he’ll be expected to develop further in this direction. In Philadelphia, though, he dug himself too much of a hole; no team could ever coalesce as long as he held the franchise in thrall. As long as the Sixers organization identified itself with Iverson, it could continue to rely on his superhuman play and feed off of his charisma.
It remains to be seen if Iverson will ever be able to settle into a team, or if he can only excel on his own terms. He might ultimately end up a tragic figure—a player who desperately wants to win but is too uncompromising to fit in with the other four guys on the court. Allen Iverson is clearly passionate about the name on the front of his jersey, but the way he plays means that the world only notices the back. He probably doesn’t mean to overshadow the franchise—it just happens when he’s trying to do right by it.